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Stigma Fighters : Gina L. Ciaccia

To The Journey: My Road to Understanding Mental Illness

Despite many people perceiving bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses as a struggle or hardship, over time, I have come to embrace the life lessons that they can teach. I would briefly like to elucidate and describe these lessons. I have truly been touched by a kind of adversity that generates a great deal of personal growth.

When I was young, I noticed that the behaviour of a family member was very turbulent and erratic. My background is conservative and Christian. Her behaviours brought a great deal of shame upon the older members of our family especially when she divorced young and had a child out of wedlock. She would punch people and scream. The next week she would lay in bed crying. Nobody knew what was wrong until so much damage had been done. Without understanding her condition, I was fearful of her simply because her mood swings were so extreme. I have never enjoyed the unexpected. In time I started to hear that she was bipolar but I was frightened of bipolar people because of what they were capable of when episodic. I actually remember thinking that none of these things could even happen to me because I had control and was able to direct my own destiny. Little did I know…

As a teen, my body started to malfunction and I became chronically ill. I dropped out of high school despite being an honour student because I felt like my world was caving in. My muscles were aching, my blood work was showing autoimmune activity, and for a two month stretch, I could barely keep food down. After my first semester of university, my body and mind just snapped and the stresses of school paired with family issues, church issues and chronic pain put me right over the edge and into psychosis. I can’t remember Dec. 26, 2005 – Jan 6, 2006 at all. All I see are occasional snapshots or bits and pieces in my dreams. My psychotic episodes are a disjointed jumble of images. Sometimes I can decode them, sometimes not.

My family had no idea what was going on. My words were jumping all over the place and they couldn’t quite understand me. It was almost like dysphagia. Eventually they did some research and my Mom found a book on bipolar disorder at the local grocery store of all places. And believe it or not. It was written by a Harvard psychiatry professor. I truly believe God helped my mother through this book and several chance encounters at this crucial time. He hasn’t brought me full healing but I do think that He has given me the ability to manage my symptoms and learn more about the topic of mental heath as a whole. He has also brought an entire community of insightful online friends into my life who work in and are diagnosed with mental illnesses. Reaching out, speaking out and casting my fears of stigma aside were all part of this process. I also thank God for giving me the strength to be myself and the understanding that your true friends will always try their best to understand your circumstances. For the first two years post diagnosis. I grappled with acceptance from others and my actual illness equally.

As time progressed and my illness was less extreme. In time my psychiatrist and nurse recommended me for the local health authority’s peer support worker program. And two years later after several stages of interviews, coursework and a hospital practicum, I graduated with 90%. I was proud of myself as only 20% of the original students graduated. I am friends with my practicum supervisor to this day and it’s a lovely friendship.

As I mentioned, there are some very inspirational people working in mental health, true unsung heroes. I have been doing support group facilitating with the Mood Disorders Association for 5 1/2 years and have worked with people of faith and of all walks of life and ages. At the end of this long and winding (seemingly unending) road, I have learned so much about the human experience in general. How giving someone the smallest glimmer of hope or friendly morsel of advice can turn their life right side up from being upside down. When your words are the right words for someone at a certain time, it’s such an encouragement for me when my seemingly young body is on a road to ruin. I am more compassionate, discerning in social situations and sensitive to the disabled in general – this horrible neurochemical imbalance and chronic pain have turned me into a softy. I got out of the proverbial bubble of self that many in my generation seem to be imprisoned by. I was never the Grinch, but my heart has definitely gone up by a few sizes!

Although I thought I would buckle under the pressure of my medical woes, in the end, all I can express is gratitude to God for this unique journey.

So here’s to the journey of mental illness!

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11054814_10155309368510591_8518571297084481362_nMy name is Gina Leanne Ciaccia
I grew up in Delta, British Columbia, Canada
My favourite school subject was geology
I am an only child
My diagnosis is bipolar 1 disorder with very limited depressive episodes.
My hobbies are creating homemade herbal remedies, writing, archeology, political science, rock collecting, reading Christian philosophy and anything to do with astronomy and space exploration. I’ve probably watched Apollo 13 100 times.!
I care a great deal about advocacy for those with learning disabilities, autism and proper social programs for the intellectually disabled.

Gina can be found on Facebook and Twitter

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